125 miles off the southern coast of Australia, pummeled on all flanks by the Tasman Sea, lies an otherworldly landscape of temperate rain forest perched upon a mountain of granite and dolerite. This untamed and rarely visited corner of the world is known as Tasmania, and Tasmania is known to climbers for its fantastic sea cliffs.
The rock upon which the island sits is totally unique within the context of climbing. Dolerite bears a striking resemblance to the prolific basalt columns of North America, but its plentiful features and gritty texture allow climbing on the sheerest surfaces. Furthermore, the dolerite exists in towering cliffs of unbroken rock, allowing routes many hundreds of feet in length. Most noteworthy is the dolerite’s unparalleled ability to withstand the forces of gravity and erosion, resulting in the most formidable and gob-smacking sea stacks on the planet.
I spent several months in the fall of 2004 traveling and climbing around Australia, and I made a point to visit this amazing land, and try my luck on a few of its infamous towers. No tower in the world inspires as much awe among climbers as the notorious Totem Pole. It burst more than 200 vertical feet out of the shark-infested Tasman Sea, supported by a base of stone no more than 10-feet wide. The angular arêtes of the column corkscrew counter-clockwise as they rise, tilting the upper half of the needle into a precarious overhang. Any climbers who dare to stand on the tiny ledge beside its base will be engulfed by bone chilling waves from the heaving sea. The fact that this precarious sliver of stone has withstood the chronic force of the tides, the thundering gales of Cape Hauy–even the pull of the moon’s gravity–completely defies comprehension.
And so, it had to be climbed! The first ascent was magnificently accomplished with aid in 1968 by the legendary Australian climber John Ewbank. British hard man Paul Pritchard visited the Cape in the ‘90’s hoping to free climb ‘the Tote’. After aiding to the summit, Pritchard rapped down the tower to scout for free climbing possibilities but dislodged a micro-wave-sized boulder that struck his head and nearly ended his life (his rescue and painstaking recovery are documented in his book The Totem Pole). In 1999, the great free-climbing protagonist of Australia Steve Monks finally established a free solution to the summit, creatively named “The Free Route” (with two pitches of 5.12b), and eventually an alternative 5.11d first pitch dubbed “Deep Play” (the title of Pritchard’s Boardman-Tasker Award-winning first book).
In 2003, Australian sport-climbing ace Monique Forestier made the first on sight free ascent of the tower via Deep Play. An on sight of The Free Route had thus far repelled all comers, including Lynn Hill (whose attempt was stymied by a broken hold). Realistically, I doubt very many people had tried the route since the first ascent. The Totem Pole is about as far from the beaten path as a climber can get. It’s located on the extreme end of Cape Hauy, itself isolated from the main population centers at the southeastern tip of the Tasman Peninsula. Just to lay eyes on the Tote requires a 90 minute trudge (each way) and a fair bit of scrambling. Few climbers have beheld this magnificent structure, and fewer still have known the feeling of roping up below its base.
Kate, Andrew (Kate’s brother), and I arrived in Tasmania just before Christmas of 2004. The Totem Pole was our sole reason for visiting, so we headed straight for Fortescue Bay to establish a damp and uninspiring basecamp near our objective. Our first day on the island was cold and blustery, so we made the long hike to Cape Hauy to get a look at our prey. Perhaps that was a mistake, because the astonishing view was more than a little intimidating. We swallowed deep and didn’t talk much on the hike back to camp. I had climbed in a lot of places–I’d covered a lot of loose ground in the Canadian Rockies and the decomposing volcanoes of the Cascade Range. I’d summited more than 30 towers on the Colorado Plateau. But I’d never seen anything like the Totem Pole. The situation gives the term “remote” a whole new meaning. We were hours of walking and several more hours of driving from the nearest town, before the age of ubiquitous cell phones. If a rescue were required, was there even anyone on the island capable of executing one?
I decided a few warmups were necessary. We headed north the next day to try our luck on The Moai, Tasmania’s second most famous sea stack. The situation on the Moai is far less intense, with a relatively mellow approach, a completely dry belay stance, and a comparatively inviting 5.10- free route to the summit. That said, it was still an adventure, with a non-trivial approach and a complicated rappel to reach the base. Andrew was not a climber at the time, but he came along to watch and snap some photos from the mainland.
Much to our relief, the climbing turned out to be excellent and within our abilities. We made it up the regular route with ease, and after a brief rest back on the ground I fired the newly added 5.12a bolted face climb called “Ancient Astronaught” on the tower’s south face. It was a beautiful day and the experience was perfect. We could see the Totem Pole looming directly to the south, but with blue skies and a shimmering sea, it no longer seemed quite so foreboding.
The next day we went exploring. The extreme southwest end of the Tasman Peninsula is capped by a stunning echelon of dolerite spires known as Cape Raoul. At that time, there was very little beta about this formation, and only a few established routes. Getting to them was complicated, involving lots of bushwhacking, rappelling and traversing. I wanted to explore these spires, but with no time for a bivy our options were limited. With a pre-dawn start we barely made it to the base of the Power Pole, the most impressive tower at the end of the cape. We managed an ascent of the Wedding Cake along the way and it was an exciting adventure. We barely made it back to camp before dark, and spent the next two days recuperating and exploring the surrounding landscape. We were becoming palpably more comfortable in this extreme environment, and the towering needles of dolerite no longer seemed quite so intimidating.
Finally it was time. We woke up early from our soggy tent and began the trek to Cape Hauy. We were nervous and quiet. We would have been happy for the hike to take several hours, but before we knew it we reached land’s end. We had three ropes with us: a 70m to fix for the rappel from the mainland to the base of the Tote, a lead line, and a 30m static line I would use to “tag up” the 70m rap line. The Tote is almost exactly 65m tall, so getting down, up, and back to shore is no simple matter. Furthermore, The Free Route spirals literally all the way around the tower, climbing every surface and every arête at one time or another, so it was important to have a rope management plan. We had ascenders, and with the 70 fixed, we had a good escape route in case we chickened out, so long as none of our cords got inextricably tangled.
As I began to rappel down towards the sea, I was completely apprehensive, but my attitude was simply to put one foot in front of the other until I came across a good reason to retreat. I stopped a few feet above the ocean and watched the water ebb and flow around the base of the tower. After so many months of wondering, dreaming, I was finally here. What a wild place to be!
There’s a nice flat boulder at the base of the tower, about 1 meter square, that provides the perfect belay stance. Above is a nice bolted anchor, so I secured myself and our gear and told Kate to come on down. I was fixated on the sea, determined to time the waves so that I wouldn’t get myself and all my equipment dowsed in cold sea water. That didn’t work! I made a solid effort, but just before I was prepared to start up a big swell came in and soaked me up to my belly button. Kate would get much worse; I was only at the base for a few minutes, she was there for nearly an hour, and got nailed by several big swells. One of the amazing things about Kate is here willingness to support me. Honestly, I don’t understand it. My fear sensors were red-lining the entire day, but she was calm and relaxed. If she had even hinted at the slightest misgiving about our objective I would have gladly retreated, but she never flinched once.
The route starts by turning the arête on the left side of the belay, and then heading up the west face of the tower. After a few moves, the route returns back to the south face, making a rising traverse to reach the right arête and then the east face. The crux is this traverse. Or perhaps, protecting this traverse.
One of the oddities of Australian climbing is the infamous “carrot bolt”. This is a machine bolt without a hanger that is permanently placed into the rock. Oz climbers carry around a quiver of removable bolt hangers that can be temporarily placed over these machine bolts, and then clipped with a biner. The second then removes the biner and the hanger when cleaning the pitch. It’s a point of ethics to limit the promulgation of bolt hangers, and so Carrots are seen as more bold. They’re certainly more difficult to clip! It takes practice to do well. It’s easy to scrape the hanger off when trying to work the biner onto the hanger, and I routinely dropped one or more hangers on tenuous clips. It seems an odd place to draw an ethical line, but for better or worse I found myself at the crux, fingers tiring, shoes soaked with water, desperately trying to insert a quivering quickdraw into my last remaining carrot hanger.
With Kate looking on intently, hoping I’ll be done soon so she can leave the soaking stance, I finally get the bolt clipped. A few thin crimping moves with small smears power up to a big flat edge. With the arête in hand I mantle up. Around the corner I can see a line of good holds leading to a finger crack that would take good gear, and then the belay ledge. I’ve made it through the crux!
The pitch ends at one of the all-time great belay ledges. 10 feet wide, five feet deep and perfectly flat. And perfectly dry! Relative to the last stance this feels like paradise. At a distance of 25 meters, suddenly the sea is beautiful again. Soon I have the static line fixed and Kate is released from her watery prison. I tow up the 70, which gets caught on the arête in a few places but comes free with a flick.
The final pitch is long, but supposedly easier. It was almost entirely bolted, and the bolts had fixed hangers. Somewhere along the line I got the impression the second pitch was significantly easier than the first. This was incorrect, but I didn’t know that at the time, so I headed up confidently, figuring the send was in the bag.
The climbing went by smoothly as I danced along the amazing arête. Nearing the top, I began to notice a creeping pump. Not yet debilitating, but steadily growing. I continued on, eyes widening, in search of any form of recovery. Finally I reached a pair of decent holds and slowly worked the pooling blood out of my forearms. After one more tenuous move, I mantled onto the summit ledge. A small tower sits atop this ledge, so I belly flopped onto this block, to ensure I had reached the summit. I fixed Kate’s line, began rigging the tyrolean back to the mainland, and exhaled a long, satisfying breath. The Free Route was in the bag, and on sight to boot.